A Misleading Title

tsaongafThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
HarperOne, September 13th, 2016

I have an assumption that any books prominently displayed in airport bookstores are not worth reading; let alone buying. The main reason for this is that books like this have to have wide appeal and books I read tend to be older and if not, present ideas or a narrative that is very unlikely to be promoted by the major publishing industry. I’ll admit there is some literary snobbery in this way of thinking but I don’t believe this is unreasonable.

The subject of this review probably ended up in airport displays because of the title but the contents don’t contain anything particularly dangerous or controversial. It is written by Mark Manson who is a very successful blogger and now very successful author too. I did not buy this but was lent it by a sibling who highly recommended it. My prejudices towards these books outlined above almost had me politely decline, but as he has taken my recommendations before, I felt the least I could do was reciprocate.

There were two assumptions I had before I started reading. One was that it was going to be an easy read and the next was that if nothing else, it would be funny. It was an easy read but it was never funny and I’m not sure if it was supposed to be. One may not be able to judge a book by its cover but I think it is fair to place some judgement on the title; especially one as deliberately attention-grabbing as this. The title does suggest that the reader is in for something outrageous but what is written within is rather tame.

Yes, the blurb does indicate there is more to the book than the title and what I have written thus far alone would not be fair criticism but the book isn’t really even about not giving a f*ck either. The actual content reads as if the title was suggested by the publisher and the author had to then awkwardly work what he wanted to write around this. Manson admits quite early that you do indeed need to give a f*ck about certain things but that what you give a f*ck about should be important. This is hardly revolutionary but I assume the author’s intended audience are people who place undue importance on possessions, pleasure and praise. They might also be people who bought it based on the profanity on the title and weren’t at all curious about the contents.

I would guess (and this is not a slight to the author), that a significant percentage of the books sold have remained unread, either sitting on coffee tables are exchanged as amusing gifts to friends and relatives. The very people who might need to be told that there are things that matter more than cars and holidays probably won’t be curious to read more than the blurb before arranging it in a tacky fashion on their bookshelf.

There is some good advice to be found within though. On top of advice on what one should place value on, there is advice about not lying to yourself and others. There is also the sage advice that there is more to life than trying to engage in sexual intercourse with everyone and everything. Ditto with enjoying food, consumer items, travel and narcotics. Manson even tells us that it is okay to and can even be good to make mistakes. You get the picture.

The book is brief but quickly (and often) moves from an advice book to an autobiography. A lot of what is written seems to be what he’s told himself about his own fairly conventional life prior to becoming the big success he undoubtedly is. The author fairly criticises the self-help genre/industry for misleading its audience and he is certainly a lot more direct and honest in his approach but none of his advice is new or original. It isn’t even particularly well written, though I do understand the audience he (and his publisher), are appealing to.

The more substantial criticism I have of this book is that the author, while realising that having good relationships and constructive life goals are important, doesn’t really offer an ultimate point to having these at all. Another unoriginal but accurate point he makes is that death is one thing we can all be certain of. He avoids moralising and the reader is only advised to discover for themselves what is truly important for them — their own truth. But he is unwilling to be more controversial than stating that substance abuse, toxic relationships and materialism are bad. I don’t disagree but if life is just a flash in the pan — as he believes, then no way of living really matters in the end. If oblivion awaits us all then there is no higher path to getting there. Whether you get there through a drug overdose or dying in your sleep at eighty surrounded by loved ones, the destination is the same.

Something else I feel is worth mentioning is that these sort of books in general only seem to inspire readers to do the same thing the author does. From what I gather from his blogging career and the biographical snapshots in this book, the author is working through his own mistakes that many in my generation can relate to. He has become very successful at giving advice but his whole public career seems to be based on that. A lot of people who have made a career out of giving advice have lived disordered lives before. Others take their advice, clean themselves up and start less (or more) successful careers giving advice too. There is a parasitical aspect to this that really bothers me. I’m sure Manson might object to being lumped in with these people but I can’t really see what he has done apart from ceasing to live a self-destructive life. Many people do this without reading self-help books or beginning new careers telling people not to do what they did in a charismatic fashion.

I am obviously not the audience for this book and there is nothing new or even particularly insightful to anyone who is even somewhat well-read. It is an easy and brief read though and includes some interesting anecdotes here and there. I could only recommend this book to someone that doesn’t normally read but as stated above, I doubt half as many copies of this have been read as were bought. The only other airport book I can recall reading was called Freakanomics and this at least did have some genuinely interesting material. For this book, I believe I’ve covered all the advice to be found within in just over one thousand words and I am sure I will continue to avoid books sold at airports.

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